Laine and Cory sit down to chat about ogham, familiars, and tarot for the Green Witchcraft bookclub, then discuss divination methods they have known and loved.
Wherein Laine and Cory sit down to chat about ogham, familiars, and tarot for the Green Witchcraft bookclub, then discuss divination methods they have known and loved. They pull some cards for the month, and answer a listener email about indicator cards, as well.
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Cory also has a book on playing card divination called 54 Devilsthat you might be interested in if you’re thinking about working with that system. He also mentions the book It’s All in the Cards, by Chita St. Lawrence (out of print but still available second-hand).
If you want to know more about geomancy, there’s a great video featuring Dr. Al Cummins that discusses geomancy as a divination system and its connection to magical ecology on YouTube.
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Title and closing music are “Woman Blues,” by Paul Avgerinos, and is licensed from Audio Socket.
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Welcome! If you’re just starting here, you should know that this post is part of my ongoing series trying to use folklore, history, and contemporary accounts of folk magic to paint a picture of what “New World Witchery” might look like. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read the first post, “What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” Then, at least logically, you might want to read the second post, which looks at how Witchcraft is an Amoral (not an Immoral) Act. But who needs logic? Start here if you please, or go back, or divine the content of future posts through by throwing bones, pulling cards, or shaking a Magic 8 Ball. I am just happy you’re here. Please note: my attempt to lay out some sort of shape that defines New World Witchcraft practices here is likely to satisfy no one (not even me). I undertake this effort largely because I think it gives me a point of reference when I’m developing other articles and trying to see how distinctly “New World” certain practices are. So let’s see where that leads us today (or perhaps, let’s not see…there’s a good bit of shapeshifting and invisibility ahead).
Witches Have a Lot of Friends (You Just Can’t See All of Them)
Anyone familiar with British cunning-folk practices has probably run across the concept of the “fairy familiar” through the works of scholars and authors like Owen Davies, Emma Wilby, and Ronald Hutton. English magical folk frequently entered into short- and long-term relationships with otherworldly beings. Sometimes these relationships were straightforward and reciprocal, and sometimes they seemed to be nearly unwanted but inevitable for the person selected by a fairy for contact and assistance. These are not elvish shoemakers doing a day’s work for a kindly cobbler, but often beings who seem to be able to impact the human world without fully understanding it, and beings who sometimes exact steep prices for their services. Wilby notes the phenomenon in her book, citing several well-known cunning folk and their fairy familiars:
“Susan Swapper (Wales, 1607), for example, claimed that she had been told by a companion that if she knelt to the queen of the fairies the latter would give her ‘a living’ while Joan Tyrry (Somerset, 1555) claimed that the fairies ‘taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’…Jonet Rendall (Orkney, 1629) was told by her fairy familiar ‘Walliman’ that ‘He sould learne yow to win almiss be healling of folk’, while Anne Jeffries (Cornwall, 1645), by virtue of the healing powers she gained as a result of her liaison with the fairies, had ‘monies, at all times, sufficient to supply her wants.”
These fairy relationships enabled many magical folk to get by, and even do some good, although one could also turn the power to do harm as well.
In the New World, relationships with spiritual folk from other realms has almost always been suspect, even diabolical. Trial recordsfrom Salem show accused practitioners of magic confessing to secret meetings in the woods with devils (although there are also potential readings that might suggest meetings with local Indian tribespeople, who were often viewed as satanic savages by English settlers). During the examination of Tituba, for example, the accused slave confessed to meeting with a Devil-figure in the home of her master, Samuel Parris. She claimed to have signed the Devil’s book and to have been forced into doing ill to the children of the household. In another round of examination, she described the familiar spirits of another accused witch, Sarah Good, as a “yellow bird” that drank blood from Good’s hand and which had “wings and two legs and a head like a woman.” The foundation of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which made the Salem trials so particularly heinous, was the permission granted by the court to allow “specral evidence,” or the suffering of the victims at the hands of unseen spirits, as concrete proof of witchcraft. Of course, many of these details derive from European witchcraft beliefs inherited from earlier trials and confessions, and we should not lay too much stock by them, but they do illustrate an interesting transition within the New World context. In many cases, the concept of “fairy” spirits who aided witches and magical practitioners shifted towards animalfamiliars (often uncanny animals) and spectral beings that could take the witch’s shape or work on the witch’s behalf (even if it was not in the witch’s best interest, as the specters often “attacked” Salem witchcraft victims in open court as the accused witches tried to defend themselves as innocent).
Witches in North America seemed to spend a lot of time either communicating with their spiritual allies (often in transfigured shapes) or gallivanting around in spirit form themselves. A common motif of “spirit flight” would allow witches to grease themselves up with a flying ointment to travel to distant towns and steal from the local larders and dry goods stores (or, even more often, the wine or whiskey stores of the well-to-do—perhaps another incarnation of the class equity balancing act I’ve already mentioned). Keeping witches out of such places involved spreading salt grains or mustard seeds on the porch or roof, hanging a sieve over the door handle, or otherwise forcing the witch to count some minute object like seeds or holes in order to frustrate her entry. Witches were thought to cavort with devils and wicked spirits in their invisible and insubstantial forms, or to go out working all kinds of mischief. A story from the Mississippi Delta region speaks of a “boo hag” that would travel out at night and leave her skin behind. Only when a young man put salt and hot pepper into her skin before she returned could she be defeated. The mindset of diabolical worship and revelry lingered in the popular imagination about witches well past the Colonial period. In the mid-nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne published his story, “Young Goodman Brown,” which was riddled with such witch lore. In more recent times, magical practitioners such as self-proclaimed “hexenmeister” Lee Gandee reported the constant presence of spirits, who he called his “boys.” Such spirits heightened or enabled magical practices for those who knew them and worked with them, even without the pretext of diabolical pacts.
Of course, not all spirits were unseen by those around the witch. Just as often, the witch’s companions would be animals like Sarah Good’s alleged yellow bird. A Virginia tale about a witch named Rindy Sue Gose tells of her diabolical pact to become a sorceress, for which she received a little black beetle in a medicine bottle, which she fed with blood from her shoulder. The sucking familiar was a trope widely found in European witch tales, and many believed that the animal would do the witch’s bidding by carrying out her orders or doing dark deeds on her behalf. The Southern tale of “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” describes a witch whose prized razorback hog is slaughtered by local ne’er-do-wells only to be resurrected by her magic to seek vengeance on those who took her friend away from her (again, a form of justice and rebalancing). A subtler way of viewing the animal relationship, however, might suggest that the witch did not so much employ the creature as a servant, but as a second self. Many witches in stories engaged in forms of shapeshifting, turning into black cats, large hares, insects, or other beasts in order to travel swiftly and unseen throughout their portion of the world. In shapeshifted form, witches were particularly vulnerable, and any harm that came to them—being cut with a silver knife or shot by a silver bullet—would leave a mark upon their human body that allowed them to be identified later or kill them outright.
They could transform others as well, using them has horses (as Betty Booker did to the old Skipper). One legend from Acoma describes two evil “warlocks” who used a magic hoop to turn themselves into coyotes in order to kidnap a beautiful girl from a nearby tribe. Interestingly, the medicine man of the tribe tracks them through the help of animals, telling the braves following him “Listen to the bird singing in yon bush. It is warning us of the great danger we ace. It says to hurry for Isleta [the girl] will be abused if she is not rescued soon.” Animal friends with spiritual connections appear to help both “good” and “bad” magicians, and the Acoma tale reads much like European fairy tales that feature animal helpers warning of danger.
Speaking of fairies, did they all disappear in the New World? Not quite. The unseen powers of fairies do linger on in parts of North America, although many of the tales involving them seem to emphasize the need to counteract their work. The concept of being “elf-shot” or attacked by fairy magic seems to have transferred into areas where large Irish and English populations thrived, including parts of the Ozarks and Appalachians. Vance Randolph speaks of “power doctors,” which are remarkably similar to the “fairy doctors” found in Irish folklore, for instance. There are also plenty of tales of “little people” in the New World, often from Native American sources, although the close interactions noted between cunning folk and fairies are largely absent. In more recent years, however, fascination with fairies and similar beings has captivated American imaginations. There are fairy-oriented gatherings, such as FaerieCon and Mythic Worlds, that seek to connect fairy beings with spiritual identity (and have a rollicking good time doing so). Threads of Traditional Witchcraft in North America have made much of connecting with a “fetch beast,” which is similar to but distinct from the familiar spirits seen in earlier periods of American witchcraft. The broad picture of North American witchcraft certainly has room for the fairy brides and husbands and teachers of British lore, of course, but on the whole North American witchcraft seems to lean more towards the animal kingdom, tales of diabolical meetings, and invisible specters than the Good People Under the Hill. Perhaps much of that has to do with the aversion to aristocracy and courtly systems in North America—the fairies of Europe often seem to organize themselves in ways that parallel the human nobles around them. North Americans are largely removed from such formal aristocracies (although they certainly still exist in the forms of social classes, as evidenced by cotillions and debutante balls). We turn, instead, to wilder things—beasts and haints and devils—to connect to magic.
In Blog Post 126 we looked a little bit at the Devil as a folkloric figure in American witchcraft. One of the questions I received in response to that post was, “but how do I meet him?” Is the Devil an entity anyone can just summon up? Do you have to be careful to call the “right” devil so as not to wind up with more on your plate than you can handle? And if you do meet the Devil, how do you come away with your soul intact (assuming you want to)?
Today I thought I’d look at some of the ways, folklorically speaking, that people have been known to get into contact with the Devil or other “dark” spirits. Some of these are based on old European folk traditions, and some call a figure which may or may not be the Devil, but which certainly shares traits with him (trickster nature, otherworldly knowledge, granting of gifts, etc.). A word of warning before we dive in, though: Do NOT attempt any spiritual summoning work or diabolical contact without the proper precautions—while dark spirits can be powerful allies, they also can have a dangerous side and should be treated with respect and caution.
So, with that being said, let’s look at some of the main ways to meet your devil.
Invocation & High Magic
If you’ve ever read Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, you’ll be quite familiar with this method. In this late 16th century play, Dr. Faustus (quite possibly based on a real person), learns the art of high magic and uses a magic circle to call forth a devil named Mephistopholes, who will act as his servitor on Earth in exchange for his soul. He seals his pact with blood, and pretty much gets what he wants for a while (including Helen of Troy), then gets dragged off to hell for his final punishment.
In Marlowe’s version, the imp is a distinct entity, and in some versions of the legend he takes on the form of a dog or other animal to serve Faustus as a familiar. Shakespeare, contemporary to Marlowe, also knew a bit about diabolic invocation through high magic. In his Henry VI, part 2, Shakespeare demonstrates a different version of how such a meeting might go. In Act I, scene iv, a conjurer named Bolingbroke summons the spirit of a devil named Asmath into a witch named Margaret Jourdain (based on a real woman and accused witch named Margery Jourdayne), then proceeds to interrogate the demon for information. He dismisses the devil just before royal authorities break in and arrest everyone present for heresy and treason.
So here we have two methods inherited from the grimoire traditions of old Europe: direct appearance and possession. Owen Davies gives an excellent overview of these traditions in his appropriately titled Grimoires: a history of magic books. These late-antiquity and medieval methods of making contact with nefarious forces also found popularity in the New World, mostly through grimoires like the Grimoire Verum, Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets, and derivative texts drawn from such sources. These tomes influenced magical systems like Pow-wow and hoodoo, though the specifically diabolic elements were often highly diminished by the time they reached the hands of folk practitioners. The exception to this is that the seals found in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses were still used for magical purposes, and several of those seals are specifically designed to invoke diabolic aid from entities like Mephistopholes and Leviathan.
Should you get the urge to perform any of these types of invocations—and I reiterate my warning about being prepared and knowing what you’re doing first—here are several rituals you might try:
The Grimoire Verum – This text says that America is ruled by the devil Astaroth, whose sigils are included for your invocational purposes. Please note that you should probably learn a little bit about basic Solomonic invocation and banishing from the Key of Solomon first, though the Grimoire Verum does give a little instruction in these areas as well.
The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses – There is a lot less instruction here than you would find in some of the other grimoires, so if you’re not versed in summoning and dispelling, you may need to look elsewhere.
Dr. Faustus – Here is the text used by Marlowe for his Faustian invocation. Bear in mind that this was designed to be staged, so use it more as a guide than a rote ritual to be followed.
Henry VI, part 2 – Shakespeare’s text for invocation and bansishment. Take with the same grain of salt you used with Marlowe’s work.
Meeting the Devil
On the more folkloric side of things, the common method for contacting a devil of some kind involves a journey to a liminal or wild place where he is thought to reside. In most cases, the Devil can be found either at a crossroads or in a forest of some kind, though there are exceptions (many modern stories of meeting the Devil involve transportation or big cities, e.g. Robert Bloch’s Hell-Bound Train, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, and the cult film Rosemary’s Baby). Probably the most famous ritual is the crossroads ritual, which I’ve mentioned here before. As I’m planning to do an article on the crossroads as an independent magical space, I won’t go into great detail, but rather just say that Cat Yronwode has a great entry on the crossroads for those who are interested.
The forest or wild place meeting is a common folkloric theme across many cultures. There are, of course, the Teutonic tales of meeting various wild spirits or devils in the forest, as in the Grimms’ tales of the Devil (see “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” or “The Devil’s Grandmother”). There are biblical precedents for these sorts of meetings as well—Moses encounters the burning bush in the desert, which is at least terrifying if not outright diabolic. Three of the gospels also recount the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert (an analog for wilderness in biblical terms). American folklore picks up this thread, and stories of meeting the devil in wilderness are quite common. “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, features such a meeting, and at least one scholar has brought the idea into the twentieth century by suggesting that “Men in Black” sightings associated with UFO’s in rural areas may be connected to devil lore.
The other alternative to the forest meeting is the graveyard meeting. Usually in this version of the story, the person meeting the Devil must also do battle with him. It can be a battle of wits, but just as often it is a physical wrestling match which parallels the interior struggle of the person confronting his or her fears by meeting the Devil in a graveyard in the firstplace.
So how does someone put this kind of meeting into practice? Will devils always show up in graveyards after dark? Will someone wandering in the forest or through a crossroads inevitably meet a Man in Black of some kind? Sadly, I have no answers here. All I can say is that if you’re truly moved to attempt these sorts of rituals, the Devil tends to show up in some form or fashion. So if you’re interested in pursuing this line of contact, you could:
Attempt the Toad’s Bone ritual, which terminates with a graveyard wrestling session or a bout in a river
Or, just wander to any of these kinds of places, swear yourself to the Devil (or in many cases, against God), and call out to the Devil to come and offer you terms of some kind—a new skill, riches, knowledge, etc. in exchange for service or something intangible like, oh, say, your soul.
One final thing I should mention is that the best-case scenario in many of these stories usually involves a person quick-witted enough to outsmart the Devil. So always be aware of just what you say to any devil you meet, and make sure you leave loopholes for yourself if you promise them anything. They seem to enjoy a good trick, so it’s a win-win if you can outsmart them.
Again, please be careful with this sort of magic. It has the potential to be dangerous, and at the very least it’s a little intense and can run you afoul of the law if you’re not cautious (loitering at crossroads or in graveyards tends to get the police rather grumpy). If you do have any good experiences with this sort of work, though, please share! I’d love to hear it!
Podcast 20 – Magical Animals
-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 20-
Today we’re looking at animals and their role in magical practice. We’ll talk about different species, shapeshifting, and familiars. In WitchCraft, Laine talks about making Black Cat Oil. Cory looks at one way to attune with a familiar in SpelledOut. Don’t forget about the Winter Lore Contest!